Last updated February 19, 2019 at 11:01 am
The alcohol industry is denying, misrepresenting, and distracting us from the links between cancer and alcohol – both on it’s effects on existing cancers and causative effect. Research from the UK surveyed 27 alcohol industry organisations, including Australia’s Drinkwise, concluded that the alcohol industry was using similar tactics as the tobacco industry, to the detriment of public health.
Above and below, experts react.
Professor Sandra Jones is Pro Vice-Chancellor for Engagement and Director of the Centre for Health and Social Research (CHaSR) at Australian Catholic University
“A particularly disturbing finding from the study was the exclusion of information on breast cancer, given the clear scientific evidence of a link between breast cancer and alcohol consumption. More than 17,000 Australian women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year. Alcohol consumption is one of the known modifiable causes of breast cancer, but many women are not aware of this association. The industry tactics identified in this study that are used to obscure information about the link between alcohol and cancer– denial/omission, distortion and distraction – resonate with those they use to reframe conversations about alcohol-related violence.”
Dr Emma Miller is a public health researcher at Flinders University
“This study underscores the perceptions that many public health professionals already have about alcohol industry funded/affiliated public information services. While the stated aim of these organisations is to promote ‘responsible’ drinking, the misinformation and obfuscation common in their messages (‘denial’, ‘distortion’ and ‘distraction’) is more about promoting the sale of alcohol. Alcohol has been identified as a class one carcinogen and it is strongly associated with many cancers – particularly breast cancer in women and bowel cancer in men – yet many people are unaware of this. Let’s put this in the Australian context where rates of breast cancer have been increasing at the same time as women in the most risky age group have been drinking more alcohol. As the study points out, groups such as Drinkwise in Australia are particularly likely to provide misleading information about breast cancer. This may be because the alcohol industry is attempting to counter evidence about the link because women are more aware of breast cancer or, even more cynically, they are attempting to address any threat to the market of women drinkers they desire to grow. Whatever the reason, it is likely to be part of the business model to lessen the impact of authentic public health voices. In all the confusion, however, breast cancer rates will continue to climb in Australian women.”
Prof Ross Gordon is an Associate Professor in Marketing at Macquarie University and President of the Australian Association of Social Marketing
“It’s not surprising that the Petticrew study finds that the alcohol industry disseminates misrepresentative information about alcohol and cancer. Contesting the research evidence base is often part of the stakeholder marketing strategy of the alcohol industry. This has parallels with the tobacco industry who contested the links between smoking and cancer for years. The Petticrew study uses qualitative analysis of alcohol industry websites and reports, to identify denial or omission, distortion, or distraction regarding the effects of alcohol on common cancers. This is an appropriate research design. However, a noted limitation of the study is that that the alcohol industry disseminates information through several other organisations and communication channels (e.g. Twitter or advertising campaigns). These were not included in the study. So, further research that examines other industry sources and channels of information on alcohol and cancer would be helpful. Given the significant human cost of cancer in Australia, it is important that information on risk factors is accurate. The alcohol industry has a social responsibility to provide accurate information to Australians. If not, then Australian policymakers may need to intervene to ensure this is done to protect consumers and to enable them to make informed choices.”
Julia Stafford is Executive Officer of the McCusker Centre for Action on Alcohol and Youth at Curtin University
“For the alcohol industry, it is an inconvenient truth that alcohol use is a cause of cancer. There is now convincing evidence that alcohol causes a range of cancers, and the risk of cancer increases as alcohol use increases. Cancer is a significant fear for many people so the alcohol-cancer link presents a threat to alcohol industry profits. Public awareness of the alcohol-cancer link is low. It doesn’t help that the alcohol industry appears to be muddying the waters about the link between alcohol and cancer. Health information about alcohol should come from governments and health authorities, not alcohol industry groups. Consumers have a right to reliable information about the risks associated with alcohol and how they can reduce their risk of harms. The new research is a reminder that the public should not rely on the alcohol industry for up-to-date, reliable health information. In Australia, the alcohol industry often still has a seat at the table where alcohol policy is developed, unlike the tobacco industry. Given the conflicts of interest and the growing evidence about industry strategies to mislead the public about alcohol’s health risks, the role of the industry in alcohol policy development needs an urgent rethink.”
Terry Slevin is Chair of Cancer Council Australia’s Occupational and Environmental Cancer Risk Committee
“There is no doubt the alcohol industry understands and is concerned about community response to the established and growing evidence linking alcohol consumption to cancer risk. An education campaign linking alcohol with breast cancer risk – run in Western Australia in 2010/11 – resulted in a large increase in women reporting the intention to reduce their drinking. That means fewer sales, and the industry will always resist action that causes downward pressure on consumption. Cancer remains the health issue that generates the greatest fear and emotional response in the community. That is particularly so in middle-aged and older people who see their own peers increasingly getting cancer diagnoses. People in that baby boomer generation are also in senior decision-making roles. So the industry that sells the product is keen to muddy the waters about what is a clear link. For too many people the alcohol and cancer story is new news. The more we drink the more we increase the risk of cancer. This is another inconvenient truth to add to the list.”
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Link to original research article: onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/dar.12596/abstract
Expert comments gathered by the Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC).